Hueston: you have a problem

In my post last week I wrote about certain aspects of John Hueston’s report to the Santa Monica City Council on the Elizabeth Riel firing and the Oaks Initiative. Last Tuesday evening Hueston presented his report to the council. There was a public hearing where members of the public gave their views, mostly about O’Connor’s culpability in the firing of Riel or, alternatively, her virtues as a longtime councilmember and regional leader.

As for Hueston’s report, he makes some good recommendations. For one, Hueston recommends that the City use, except in unusual circumstances, a formal interview process when hiring “at will” (i.e., non-civil service) employees, and identify ahead of time whether a position is politically sensitive, to allow questions in the interview process about applicants’ histories of political activities specifically relating to councilmembers with whom they may need to interact. The latter recommendation more or less tracks the law as Federal District Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell described it in her rejection of Santa Monica’s motion to dismiss Riel’s complaint; she said that if political history (or lack thereof) is going to be factor in whether someone is going to be hired, that has be made clear as part of the job description.

Moving onto the Oaks Initiative, Hueston made an excellent and common sense suggestion that enforcement of the law be entrusted to an attorney in the Criminal Division of the City Attorney’s office. Although under the City Attorney’s purview, the Criminal Division nearly always operates independently and in any case does not give legal advice to the City Council. Having a designated attorney in the Criminal Division, who would not report to the City Attorney on Oaks matters, would seem to solve the problem of the City Attorney having conflicts of interest when investigating councilmembers.

In last week’s post about Hueston’s report I wrote about how Hueston was able to interview City Attorney Marsha Moutrie and shed more light on the interplay between her and City Manager Rod Gould preceding Gould’s decision to fire Riel. Hueston also interviewed people who had been involved in the Riel hiring process, but who had not given depositions in the lawsuit. Information from them has given us a better understanding of what Riel’s mindset might have been when, in the fateful phone call of May 23, 2014 with Gould, he asked her to explain why she had not revealed her past political activities in the interview process. It was her answer to Gould’s question, namely that she had disclosed her political past, that angered him and led to her being fired.

Why did Riel answer that way? The answer now seems to be that Riel had in fact disclosed her past political activities, or had at least disclosed enough to believe in good faith that she had been open about them. On page 13 of his report Hueston recounts testimony from a member of the panel that interviewed Riel for the job (a panelist who requested anonymity) that this panelist supported Riel for the job precisely because Riel had been upfront about her past involvement in Santa Monica politics (and that this showed she was comfortable with politics). Although the panelist could not recall if Riel’s disclosures extended to disclosing that she had worked on campaigns for councilmembers (or against them, as in the case of O’Connor), this could easily explain why Riel had in that phone call with Gould told him that she had disclosed her political activities.

It’s too bad that Gould did not know about what Riel had disclosed in the interview process. If he had, he might have been able to diffuse O’Connor or at least not become angry himself. As it is, again this is evidence that rule number one should be that if there is a process, then trust it.

One gripe I have about Hueston’s report is that he didn’t interview Riel, who would have been able to tell Hueston what she disclosed during the hiring process. The reason Hueston gives is that Riel requested compensation for her time, as well as that her attorney be paid to attend the interview. In Hueston’s opinion he already had enough testimony from Riel from her lawsuit deposition and the City didn’t need to spend the money. In my opinion, Riel’s requests were perfectly reasonable, and I don’t understand why Hueston (or if he didn’t have the authority, whoever did) didn’t authorize the expenditure. The City is paying something like $400,000 (or more) for Hueston’s investigation; it would have been worth a few thousand dollars more to hear from the person who was at the center of the controversy, particularly with respect to questions that didn’t come up in her deposition.

Alas, the upshot is that Riel comes across as mercenary, which is unfair. As I said, her requests for compensation and for her lawyer’s presence in the interview were reasonable. After enduring litigation, even if you prevail, there’s no reason to be philanthropic with the other side, and you certainly shouldn’t talk to them without your lawyer. I haven’t agreed much with Diana Gordon, of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, about the Riel controversy, but Gordon was 100% correct when she spoke Tuesday night about how in all the uproar about O’Connor and Gould, we tend to forget what a victim Riel was.

While I would never call City Attorney Marsha Moutrie a victim, she is being victimized by a growing meme that she was grossly incompetent in not advising Gould that he would violate Riel’s First Amendment rights if he fired her. As I said in my post last week, Moutrie’s advice that Gould could fire Riel because she was an at-will employee turned out to be bad advice when Judge O’Connell rejected, mostly on First Amendment grounds, the City’s motion to dismiss Riel’s complaint. There’s nothing, however, in O’Connell’s ruling, the only legal ruling on these questions I know of in the case, that indicates that the issue was cut and dried.

But that’s not according to how the story is being spun. At Tuesday’s City Council meeting a resident said that according to the ruling any “first year law student” should have known that Gould would violate Riel’s free speech rights if he fired her. That was just the start. By the time, a little later in the evening, that Councilmember Sue Himmelrich was giving her two cents, she said (quoting from the Daily Press’s coverage), “I agree that the federal court did say that even a first grader would know this was a violation of her federal rights.”

I know that all first graders in Santa Monica are brilliant, but this seems to take hyperbole to a new level. In fact, Judge O’Connell had to use 19 closely reasoned, single-spaced pages to conclude that notwithstanding the basic rule that in public employee First Amendment cases public employers have “wide discretion and control over the management of their personnel and internal affairs,” the ultimate burden of proof, after Riel had satisfied a preliminary threshold, was on the City to prove that Riel’s rights had not been violated and the case should go to trial. Even following the rule that on a motion to dismiss everything in a complaint must be viewed in the plaintiff’s favor, O’Connell’s decision was not a slam-dunk. (For more on Judge O’Connell’s ruling, see my post from Oct. 16.)

I word-searched O’Connell’s ruling for “first year” and “first grader” and didn’t come up with any hits. Someone please tell me if there is another ruling in the case I don’t know about, and I’ll correct myself, but until then I’ll attribute Moutrie’s bad advice to human fallibility and the complexity of the law, rather than to not having the legal knowledge of a six-year-old.

Thanks for reading.

How to build boxes on the boulevards

You may be familiar with the honor code of the Texas state legislature, as chronicled by the late Molly Ivins: “If you can’t drink their whiskey, screw their women, take their money, and vote against ’em anyway, you don’t belong in office.”

After reading the staff report for Wednesday’s Santa Monica Planning Commission hearing on certain proposed amendments to the land use and circulation elements of Santa Monica’s general plan (LUCE), I’m thinking that the Texas code is not sufficient for Santa Monica. Maybe we need to add another disqualifier:

“If you can’t ignore panicked reactions to angry residents, you don’t belong on the Planning Commission.”

After a six-year process overseen by the Planning Commission, a process that involved remarkable public involvement, the City Council unanimously approved the LUCE in 2010. Back then the LUCE was popular. Even anti-development organizations then involved in Santa Monica politics, normally skeptical of anything emanating from City Hall, approved it.

So what happened? New anti-development groups, notably Residocracy, emerged. New politicians, such as Richard McKinnon, John C. Smith, Armen Melkonians, Phil Brock, and ultimately Sue Himmelrich, none of whom had been active in the LUCE process, also emerged. They hitched their wagons to the anti-development movement.

At the same time, battles were being fought over downtown hotels, battles that didn’t involve anything in the LUCE, but which provided endless fodder for opponents of development. Poorly considered preliminary plans for the Miramar got the Huntley Hotel involved, and the Huntley became a financial and organizational resource for the new anti-development players.

Then in early 2014 the City Council approved the Hines Paper Mate project on a 4-3 vote. The Hines project followed the LUCE guidelines closely, but it was unquestionably large, and suddenly the anti-development forces had, literally, a big target. Worse, because the one big failing of the LUCE was that it allowed for too much commercial development near Bergamot Station, the Hines project would have placed a lot of jobs at a location that was already overwhelmed with commuter traffic.

After defeating the Hines project, the anti-development forces looked for more targets. They found some on the boulevards. Wednesday night the Planning Commission will consider stripping from the LUCE a few mild encouragements for building something other than retail boxes on our boulevards.

Specifically endangered are two potential “activity centers” on Wilshire, one at 14th and one at Centinela. There the LUCE would allow for small increases in development standards to encourage multiple property owners to join together to make better places for mixed residential and commercial developments by sharing parking, open spaces, etc. Pretty innocuous, really, especially since anything built under the activity center designation would be subject not only to the intensive public review of a development agreement, but also to the preparation, through a public process, of a separate area plan.

Similarly, development opponents want to eliminate, from most of the boulevards, “Tier 3” developments, which allow for more housing to be built but which require a development agreement.

The opposition to development along the boulevards from a few people, concentrated in neighborhood groups, has been fierce. The staff report includes euphemistic statements like “substantial community input has been submitted questioning the continued appropriateness of the Wilshire activity centers,” or that the LUCE’s tiers of development and development review, have “created community concern.”

“Questioning the continued appropriateness?” “Created community concern?” Now nice. But we’re not talking about a tea party—or maybe we are.

There’s a lot of anger in Santa Monica these days about development, but there’s no indication that the passion, though at times deep, is widespread. After all hubbub over Hines, the hotels, etc., leading up to the November election, turnout was abysmally low. Yes, the two candidates running for City Council who got the most votes, Kevin McKeown and Himmelrich, ran on anti-development platforms, but factors other than their anti-development support were more crucial to their victories. As it happens, neither one of them got even one-sixth of the registered voters in the city to vote for them.

No one in Santa Monica politics has a mandate and no one bestows them. Elected and appointed officials should vote according their own analysis of the facts, using their knowledge and expertise, not according to who yells loudest.

And they should respect the process. The LUCE isn’t perfect. It should be amended. The development standards in the old industrial areas should be changed so that all new development in excess of what’s there now should be residential. This would respond to the chief complaint about the Hines project, that it had too much office development and not enough housing. But if we’re going to amend LUCE, let’s have a real process, not just the Planning Commission and staff sending something to council in response to squeaky wheels.

Back in 2010 when some of us were arguing against how the LUCE encouraged office development around Bergamot, because we wanted to see more residential development, staff told us not to worry because residential development would be located on the boulevards.

Now with this possible capitulation to the anti-development side, the City might abandon the possibility of building significant housing along the boulevards. But in the “be careful what you wish for department,” the anti-development folks should consider what this would mean.

When properties on our boulevards turn over, as they surely will, if property owners build to Tier 1 standards (up to two stories, 32-feet high) to avoid discretionary review, what do you think they will build? There are two possibilities:

• Retail boxes on top of underground parking. On Wilshire, think Whole Foods or Staples.

• Or maybe two stories of offices, with a bank or brokerage on the ground floor.

If you’re concerned about traffic, what do you think generates more car trips, a bank or a store, or an apartment building?

Thanks for reading.

 

Getting philosophical about water

In California it’s hard to stop writing about water once you start, and after I posted last week’s piece about water rates, more thoughts bubbled to the surface. (Sorry.)

For one, what about the fact that opponents of the rate increase persuaded about a quarter of the city’s property owners to file protests against the rates? Under Prop 218, if a majority of them had protested, the rate increases could not have gone into effect. What if the organizers of the “no” campaign had succeeded?

It’s frightening. The Water Division would have gone into deficit. What might have happened then? It’s like in Washington where people play politics with shutting down government. It’s nihilism.

By any measure, Santa Monica is a well-run municipality. Elected representatives have made responsible choices over the decades, particularly in connection with infrastructure and essential services, like water. Going back more than a century we have had a citizenry with admirable public spirit that has voted time and again to tax itself to pay for what the city (and schools) need. What’s with all this anger and spite? You’re telling me that because traffic is bad Santa Monicans don’t want to pay what it costs to keep their water running?

And no, it’s not about enabling development and yes, Council Member Sue Himmelrich was correct when she said that water was underpriced.

Another thing that I thought more about since last week is whether the City should borrow money, by issuing bonds, to pay for water system capital expenditures. This is a possibility that the City Council left open when it increased rates.

I support municipal borrowing for infrastructure, but debt is not always appropriate. It’s like with any enterprise. Borrowing makes sense when a city needs to make large expenditures, too large to be paid for with current income or accumulated savings, to build assets that will have a long lifespan. Santa Monica voters did the smart thing a century ago when they approved bonds to pay for buying water rights and for the initial building of the system, because they didn’t have the cash.

But that’s not the case now: the system is built and for the most part capital expenditures are needed only to maintain it. It’s not a good idea to borrow money for routine expenditures, and that includes maintenance. The current capital plan, according to a staff report to City Council from last June, is to spend about $3.5 million each year, about 11 percent of the Water Enterprise Fund, to replace aging water mains.

The City has about 250 miles of water mains. Some pipes, made of cast iron, go back to the 1920s. Old cast iron pipes not only might burst, but they also rust inside and that reduces water pressure and flow. Typically it costs $3.5 million to replace 9,000 linear feet of pipe, a little less than 2 miles, with pipes made of more advanced materials, such as ductile iron or polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

This pace may not be fast enough. Water mains may last a century, but replacing less than two miles per year will not recycle a 250-mile system in 100 years. As the pipes from the system’s big expansion in the 1920s hit the century mark, the Water Division may need to pick up the pace. But even so, it’s unlikely that the City will need to spend tens of millions of dollars at any one time. Is it going to make sense to borrow? We’ll have to see, but I doubt it.

Last week the City Council was considering rates for the next five years, and chose not to raise rates in years two through five by the 13 percent that Water Division staff had recommended. I agree with those council members who expressed caution about spending $6 million over five years on new water meters, money that makes up much of the difference between 13 percent and the 9 percent increase that council approved. I suspect, however, that the realities of maintenance will mean that higher rates will be required in the future.

Some opponents of the rate increases who want the city to borrow to pay for capital expenditures say that it’s not fair for them to have to pay for infrastructure that will be used by future generations. I discussed this argument in my last column, but the more I think about it the question raises philosophical issues. I have to ask: what are we doing here, in this city (and in this world), if not to leave it (or both) a better place?

When I moved to Santa Monica more than 30 years ago I received the benefit of all the investments prior generations had made not only in our water system, but also in streets, parks, schools, etc. It’s our turn.

And so what if we leave better public facilities for future generations? In my view, that’s something I’d be proud of, not resentful about.

Thanks for reading.

Following some money

The headline in the Lookout for the article about the final financial reports for the 2014 City Council election was “Himmelrich Spent $160,000 of Her Own Money to Win Santa Monica Council Seat,” but even though $160,000 was a record for self-financing a City Council campaign here, I was less interested in how much money Susan Himmelrich spent to win election and more interested in how she spent some of it.

What the article did not report was that Himmelrich paid nearly $30,000 to Dennis Zane and to PZ Associates, an entity that Zane formed. Here’s the breakdown: Himmelrich paid Zane $15,000 for political consulting, plus $4,475 for office expenses, including one flat $3,000 payment. She paid PZ $9,255 partly for consulting services and partly in a category called “campaign paraphernalia/misc.” (PZ is known for running door-to-door campaigns.)

These payments are not out of line for these kinds of services. Why am I focusing on them? For one reason: the payments were breaches of Zane’s fiduciary duty to Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR). As a member of the SMRR Steering Committee, Zane was guilty of self-dealing, by taking money from a candidate seeking the SMRR endorsement. Self-dealing cannot be made good by disclosure or recusal (not that Zane in fact recused himself).

The SMRR endorsement is crucial to getting elected, especially for anti-development candidates, as no candidate for City Council running on an anti-development platform has ever been elected without the SMRR endorsement. As a follow up to my post in January where I wrote about how Himmelrich finally got the endorsement from the Steering Committee (in a deal where Himmelrich got the committee votes she needed in return for her supporters voting to endorse Andrew Walzer for College Board), I can report that I received a message from Walzer the next day defending the “trade off in voting for [him] and Sue.” Apparently, according to Walzer, it was “complicated,” which naturally made me feel better about it. But in case you had doubts, it did happen.

I’m not the only one still taking a look back at the election, although not everyone has the same motivations. The Santa Monica Democratic Club (SMDC) had a panel discussion last week about it. I didn’t go, but according to the Lookout, the gist of the meeting was that the election of the anti-development Himmelrich had, in the words of SMRR Co-Chair Patricia Hoffman, “‘flipped the balance of power on the City Council.’”

Apparently, though, the struggle continues. Hoffman went on to say that “‘[w]e have a lot more work to do . . . . If we can work together and spend the next few years selecting candidates, that, I think, can make our City Council even better.’”

“Even better.” Given that all seven city council members were elected at least initially with the SMRR endorsement, I guess Hoffman is saying that the old SMRR, the one that based its progressive politics on issues beyond blocking development, is history. And I expect that if the Steering Committee, given its demographics, continues to make the endorsements, the old SMRR will be history.

That’s right, let’s throw out all those bums we supported before who care about housing for all, including the middle-class, and good union jobs and city and social services and childcare and public transportation, etc. You know the ones who understand that Santa Monica is not an island. They’re not sufficiently deferential to our new friends in the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City and Residocracy.

* * *

Given the record-breaking $160,000 Himmelrich spent on her campaign, one might wonder why her husband, Housing Commissioner Michael Soloff, had to make campaign contributions, each of $10,000, to SMRR and the SMDC. Why didn’t Himmelrich make the contributions herself? The reason is based on campaign finance law: SMRR and SMDC were running independent campaigns on Himmelrich’s behalf, and because there is a contribution limit for City Council races, the campaigns could not coordinate with Himmelrich. Otherwise, contributions an individual or company might make to SMRR and the SMDC could be counted against the contributor’s limit. Giving money to an independent campaign is a form of coordination, and so Himmelrich couldn’t write the checks. Both she and Soloff are attorneys, and so one expects that they did legal research (but separately, not coordinated!) to satisfy themselves that it’s not coordination if the money comes from a spouse. But let’s face it—even if it’s legal, it’s a dodge. I wonder if the Santa Monica Transparency Project will investigate?

There’s another aspect to this. The old SMRR prided itself on a policy of rarely accepting individual contributions that were more than the limit for council races, which is now $325. The new SMRR not only accepted Soloff’s $10,000, but also $10,000 from the Huntley Hotel, the primary bankroller of anti-development campaigns in the city. Back in July, before the SMRR convention where she’d be seeking the SMRR endorsement, Himmelrich herself gave $1,000. There is no law limiting the amount of contributions to SMRR, and the limit was voluntary, but the limit was once a point of pride. So much for that.

* * *

One footnote: the Lookout piece I quote from above about campaign expenditures got the numbers for my campaign wrong. The article said that I contributed $20,000 and my total campaign expenditure was $75,000, but those numbers are incomplete. The reason the reporter was mistaken is that my campaign accountant had us wrap up our finances in 2015, and the final numbers are in a statement for the period Jan. 1-5 that we filed a few weeks ago. The complete numbers are that I contributed $36,920.90 to my campaign and the total expenditure was $96,128.90. I understand the Lookout will be running a correction, but I wanted the record to be correct.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

More on the City Council election: why two attack campaigns failed

After my posts last week, I don’t have too much more to say about the City Council election, but I do want to write about at the least one thing: the failure of attack advertising.

But first—there’s nothing wrong with negative campaigning. Candidates want to let voters know that their ideas, values and, yes, their characters are better than the ideas, etc., of their opponents. To do that it’s okay for candidates to say why they believe that the ideas, etc., of their opponents are not-so-good.

Negative campaigning can be untruthful or unfair, but that goes for positive campaigning, too. Civility is good, sure, but exaggeration is part of politics, and it would be a danger to democracy to elevate civility over robust debate. My purpose in this post is not to moralize about negative campaigning, but to analyze the effectiveness of attack campaigns in Santa Monica.

There were two significant attack campaigns in the November City Council election, both run by independent campaigns. (By campaigns I mean mail or phone campaigns, not just criticisms that candidates might make of each other at forums, etc.) The first, chronologically, was the campaign by the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) against Pam O’Connor. The second was by the Miramar Hotel against Sue Himmelrich.

At my house we received five mailers from SMCLC and only one was positive about the three candidates (Kevin McKeown, Richard McKinnon and Himmelrich) that SMCLC supported. The other four were hits on O’Connor.

SMCLC’s hits on O’Connor were hard. The mailers had headlines like “Pam O’Connor has NEVER voted against a large development in 20 years on City Council,” “Pam O’Connor is funded by Developers,” “Pam O’Connor rewarded a developer with millions for destroying our homes” (words attributed to elderly and disabled residents of the Village Trailer Park), “O’Connor approved Expo line at street level in Santa Monica, which will worsen our already terrible traffic,” or “700 new pack-and-stack apartment units – APPROVED.”

When I received the mailers I thought they would be effective. They pushed a lot of buttons. As it happened, however, although we’ll never know if SMCLC’s attacks had marginal impact, they didn’t stop O’Connor from winning reelection. I have two theories why.

One is that the attacks were over-the-top. The mailers ranged from misleading to scurrilous to nutty. Blame O’Connor for “pack-and-stack” apartments? Putting aside that unflattering description, nearly all apartments built in Santa Monica for 20 years fall under zoning that was passed 20 years ago (I’m not even sure O’Connor was yet on the council) to satisfy a court judgment against the City requiring it to allow housing to be built; in response City Council enacted an ordinance that encouraged housing development in downtown instead of neighborhoods, and where it could replace traffic-generating commercial development. Blame O’Connor for Expo at ground level? That was a decision that the council made to avoid having a giant viaduct over downtown and a station at Fourth and Colorado 35 feet in the air. O’Connor takes money from developers? Attacks on a candidate’s campaign funding are rarely successful—voters know money is part of politics. O’Connor is personally responsible for evicting tenants from the Village Trailer Park? That’s where the campaign finally jumped the shark.

I doubt that SMCLC is looking for advice from me, but the attacks might have had more credibility if SMCLC had focused on one or two particular votes that they didn’t like. It’s better to pound on one point rather than take a scattershot approach; by the time I received the fourth mailer, the campaign looked kooky. Which leads to my second theory why the attacks didn’t work, namely that O’Connor did the smart thing: she ignored them.

Ignoring an attack would likewise have been a good policy for the Miramar Hotel, which overreacted to a brilliant piece of campaign mail that Himmelrich’s campaign sent out in late October. This was her four-page “Miramar ’Zilla” piece that attacked the Miramar’s plans for redevelopment, a mailer that put Himmelrich in the forefront of a crowded field of candidates running on anti-development platforms.

The Miramar responded with a massive counterattack in the last week of the campaign, accusing Himmelrich and her husband of multiple campaign indiscretions and various hypocrisies. If you’ve read my posts last week, you know that I don’t believe that everything Himmelrich did (or had done for her) to win the election was “transparent,” but like SMCLC’s charges about developer contributions to O’Connor’s campaign, these are the kinds of attacks that voters tune out. The Miramar people may have been righteously angry about the ’Zilla attack, but in retrospect the mailer warranted an indignant press release, not Armageddon.

In response to the attacks, Himmelrich did the exact opposite of O’Connor—she counterattacked in force, mostly with robo-calls from people defending her. In her case, however, a vehement response made sense. While there was some risk of amplifying the Miramar’s charges, Himmelrich by counterattacking was able to reiterate and reinforce her original attack on the Miramar’s project. By depicting herself as a victim of corporate attacks she further strengthened her anti-development credentials.

So what’s the takeaway? Probably not much. In hindsight, O’Connor with her long history in the community and Himmelrich with her SMRR endorsement seem destined to win. But Santa Monicans who like their politics to be civil can take satisfaction in the fact that two virulently negative independent campaigns didn’t work.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

Back to what I do better

Now where was I? Oh yeah, back in July I wrote my last post on this blog, a manifesto on why I was running for Santa Monica City Council, and then something happened called a campaign. I spent four months expressing myself as a politician not as a pundit.

My political self terminated, abruptly, November 4, when I lost, and since then I’ve been taking it easy. (One could say I’ve been licking my wounds and I wouldn’t argue the point.) Anyway, there’s life after politics. I hope I’m better at punditry.

As always Santa Monica provides a lot to write about, and I’ll start with the election. The most important vote was the landslide victory of LC and defeat of D, which removes the most significant local impediments to closing the airport and building a big park there.

But enough happy talk. I can’t help but write about the election for City Council even if, as a candidate who lost, I’m unlikely to be objective about it. But my observer self is fascinated by the election, especially since the results were so different from those of two years ago—at least when viewed through the lens of the development politics that have pushed all other issues to the side.

How different? In 2012 there were four winning candidates (Ted Winterer, Terry O’Day, Gleam Davis and Tony Vazquez). If you take them and add the runner-up (Shari Davis), only one of the top five candidates (Winterer) ran with the support of the anti-development side of Santa Monica politics. In 2014 there were three winning candidates (Kevin McKeown, Susan Himmelrich and Pam O’Connor). If you take them and add the runner-up (Phil Brock) only one of the four top candidates (O’Connor) ran without the support of the anti-development side. (I came in fifth.)

In 2012 only one of four winners ran with anti-development support; in 2014 two of three winners did. That’s a big change, and the anti-development folks are claiming victory. I don’t argue the fact that they won, but has there been a seismic shift in the electorate—as they claim?

There are two explanations going around for the success of the anti-development candidates, one from each side. I don’t buy either.

The opponents of the anti-development side argue that the electorate in 2014 was more conservative and anti-development than usual because turnout was much lower. True, 47,945 Santa Monicans voted in 2012 and only 28,333 in 2014, but I don’t see how a larger turnout would have changed the results, except perhaps at the margins.

The anti-development side argues that in the aftermath of the controversy over the Hines project and the formation of Residocracy the electorate has become more focused on (and angry about) development, and better organized to vote for anti-development candidates. There is no question that development seems to be the only issue that anyone talks about these days, in part because the Hines project was the first large development that the City Council had approved in a long time, but I’m skeptical that this indicates anything meaningful about a long-term trend. There has been plenty of anti-development agitation going back 30 years and the success of anti-development candidates has always ebbed and flowed.

So what do I believe happened between 2012 and 2014?

I’m of the “the more things change, the more they remain the same” school, and I suspect that the results in 2012 and 2014 reflected two constants of Santa Monica politics, namely the power of incumbency and the power of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR).

The victory in 2014 of then-Mayor O’Connor illustrated the power of incumbency, as she won notwithstanding vicious and well-financed attacks against her. (The other incumbent, McKeown, won easily.) Incumbency was also significant in 2012 when incumbents O’Day and Davis, and former council member Vazquez, all won easily.

As for the power of SMRR, nothing illustrated it more than the victory of newcomer Himmelrich in 2014. Himmelrich defied conventional wisdom and showed that a first-time candidate could win—with the SMRR endorsement. But beyond Himmelrich’s victory, there was also the fact that Jennifer Kennedy, who ran little of a campaign other than by way of her SMRR endorsement, and who had no other significant organizational endorsements, finished a strong sixth.

The SMRR brand is by far the strongest in Santa Monica, but it’s especially important for anyone running as an anti-development candidate. Since SMRR ran its first candidates 35 years ago no candidate running as an anti-development candidate has won election to the Santa Monica City Council without SMRR’s endorsement. (Funny how anti-development organizations and activists rail against SMRR’s control over local politics when they wouldn’t have any power but for that control—but that’s another story.)

The most reasonable explanation for the 2014 results is the most obvious one. “Follow the SMRR endorsements.” In all previous elections going back more than 30 years SMRR has endorsed candidates from both its anti-development and progressive, housing-and-services factions. In 2014, the anti-development victory, winning two out of three seats, happened because for the first time SMRR endorsed only anti-development candidates.

It wasn’t easy for SMRR to get there. Readers will recall that the original SMRR slate left an open slot, which the SMRR Steering Committee filled in a special meeting less than six weeks before the election with its endorsement of Himmelrich.

Why did SMRR go 100% anti-development in 2014? I’ll get into that question in my next post.

Thanks for reading. It’s good to be back. Happy New Year.